Friday, January 4, 2013

The Value of Winter Writing Retreats-- How to Stand Back and Get a Better Look at Your Book

Years ago, I lived near the excitement and chaos of New York City--close enough to train in for an opera or play.  The speed of life was fast there, even though our home was in the suburbs.  A family change brought us all to a remote village in northern New England.  I loved the idea of calming down, working on my next novel, and trying life in the "real" country. 

I thought I'd be bored.  To my surprise, I fell in love with it. 

Winter where I live now is the "holiday postcard" type--deep snow, fierce winds, blue chilly skies, and staying indoors except for snowshoeing and skiing.  Winter is a force to surrender to, not fight.  When the plow doesn't clear your road for hours after a storm, you adjust your plans. 

My neighbors, who have lived here for generations, know how to handle winter.  They try to enjoy it, rather than dashing about and getting a lot done.  Instead, they spend time with family and friends, work on indoor projects, read and knit and do jigsaw puzzles. 

It's as if winter is the perfect time for a retreat.  A time to stand back and get a better look at life.  To think about what's to come. 

The Value of Retreating
Spiritual students know the value of retreating to deepen their practice.  Sometimes it comes in the form of a conference or seminar, sometimes as a week at a monastery or retreat center, other times taking a class or studying with like-minded souls.  Getting away from the stress of daily life does let us contemplate what's working, what we'd like to learn next, what we need to focus on.

I love this quote from the Tao Te Ching:  "If you want to become full, let yourself be empty."  Retreats are a way of emptying out what you know and becoming empty and still enough to hear what you were ignoring.

What does this have to do with books?  Everything!  Retreats--whether for a day, week, or afternoon--help you rejuvenate your writing.  You can retreat to get a new view of a writing problem, make progress, get unstuck, or even look at your whole project in a different way. 

Retreats allow you to give up what you know, ask new questions, and listen for the answers you don't expect.

Creating a Winter Writing Retreat for Yourself
Most writers don't even consider retreating because there's not enough time or they don't give themselves the luxury or permission to break away from daily responsibilities and immerse themselves in their art.

But retreats can be small, negotiated, and very valuable.  To retreat successfully you only need four things:

1.  a stretch of uninterrupted time negotiated from those who depend on you
2.  prompts or another source of inspiration to guide your retreat
3.  a safe, nurturing place to be, again without interruptions
4.  your book-in-progress and writing tools to work on it

Finding the Time to Retreat
For many of us, there's no time.  There's always too much to do, too many things to take care of.  So, to retreat, we have to give up something to make space in our calendars.

What are you willing to give up to get away?  Most of us have what life coach Jennifer Louden calls "shadow monsters," those activities that we use to distract ourselves, numb out emotions, or get approval from others.  Maybe you like to watch the TV news each evening.  Or stop en route to work for a latte.  Or call a friend for a long whinge each week.  These are the small time-suckers that I look at first--what could go, just for this retreat, to free up some time?

Sometimes family and friends can help you see what you might let go of, just temporarily, to make time for an hour's retreat or an afternoon or evening off.

If you are dreaming of a longer retreat, look at weekends.  Two or more days takes some negotiating, especially if you have childcare or eldercare responsibilities.  And longer retreats usually demand that you physically get away from your life--to a retreat center, a cabin, even a nearby hotel.  Most writers benefit greatly from this kind of silence and space.

Because so many do, there are now wonderful retreat centers for writers.  Start by looking at The Writers' Retreat  or Retreats for Writers lists.  Search by location, amenities, and cost to see what works for you.  A retreat center might be as close as your town--they are springing up everywhere.  Also consider monasteries and religious centers. 

To get a sense of the benefit of such get-aways, read this wonderful piece on retreating at the famous MacDowell Colony near Peterborough, New Hampshire.  It'll put you right into the atmosphere of a winter retreat!

Prompts and Sources of Inspiration
If you are in the middle of a final draft and just need to focus on it, you may not need anything else but uninterrupted space and time.  But if you are retreating without any idea of what outcome you want, it's good to have guidance.  I usually carry along a few books for inspiration and--most important!--great writing prompts.

I try one prompt every day, if I'm retreating for longer than an afternoon.  Usually in the morning. 

I also bring along four or five of my favorite books to read when I get stuck.  Unless I am at final revision, I don't worry about inadvertent plagarism.  Mostly, I use them to jumpstart my image bank.  Reading just a few lines from Lief Enger's Peace Like a River, for instance, gets me directly into the cadence of dialogue--he is a master.  I choose Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin for its imagery.

Taking a Winter Retreat Today
This afternoon I have my first retreat of the new year planned.  I'm going "away" for four hours, by myself, coming home late for dinner most likely.  I'm going to the local library for part of my retreat--there's a corner table in the fiction stacks that's secluded, warm, and has enough room for my laptop and books.  I bring my earbuds and plug into music to keep out the noise of other people.  To create a real retreat world.

I've got my first prompt to work on.  "Write about the color red."  It's from Natalie Goldberg, and it's one I've used before.  I always get something new from it. 

I'm also going to look at my writing goals for the new year, decide what kind of rhythm I'm going to set myself and what I am willing to let go of to make that happen.

Your writing exercise this week:  Consider a retreat.  Look at your calendar for January and see what might be possible.  Design it like you would a longed-for vacation, for that is exactly what it is.

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